La Paz Scenery
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La Paz Overview
La Paz, meaning peace, is a tranquil Mexican town where the cactus-studded desert abruptly meets the sea in eye-popping fashion. Located on a large bay on the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California), La Paz is the capital of Baja California Sur, an arid peninsula extending some 800 miles south of the U.S. border. It's famous for its pastel neocolonial homes, beautifully updated waterfront promenade, sandy beaches, fiery sunsets and abundant marine life.
Once a simple spot for sport fishing (John Wayne and Bing Crosby were frequent visitors), La Paz has evolved into something of a hot spot for ecotourism. Its proximity to the gray whale winter breeding grounds in Magdalena Bay, pristine islands of the Sea of Cortez and Sierra de la Laguna mountains attracts whale watchers, kayakers, hikers, birders and scuba divers.
Still, exploration and adventure are nothing new to La Paz. Nearly five centuries ago, Hernan Cortes arrived there, followed by Jesuit missionaries. English and Dutch pirates raided treasure-filled Spanish galleons trapped in the La Paz Bay. In the early 19th-century, La Paz became the capital of Baja after a hurricane wiped out Loreto. The city prospered as a pearl center until the 1930s, when local oyster beds were destroyed by disease.
While nearby Cabo San Lucas attracts hordes of tourists, La Paz still offers an authentic provincial experience, although in recent years beachfront condos have been springing up at the north end of town. Of all Baja's cities, La Paz draws most heavily from the traditions of mainland Mexico. Many pacenos (locals) are descended from mainlanders who came in the 19th and 20th centuries to escape political upheaval.
Today, this university town has a large cultural center that features a theater for dance and music performances, plus whale and anthropology museums. The biggest annual holiday is the pre-Lent Carnaval, a six-day party with parades, costumes, music, dancing and fireworks. In early May, Cortes' 1535 landing is reenacted during the Fiesta de la Paz. In mid-November, the Baja 1000 off-road racers roar into town at the end of their dusty, 1,000-mile race.
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Other Mexican Riviera Cruise Ports:
Acapulco • Cabo San Lucas • Catalina Island (California) • Ensenada • Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo • La Paz • Manzanillo • Mazatlan • Puerto Vallarta • San Diego
Cultured black pearls from the Sea of Cortez were once called the queen of gems and the gem of queens. The pearl farm Perlas del Mar de Cortez is today's sole producer.
Mexico's official language is Spanish. English is widely spoken.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the peso. Check www.xe.com and www.oanda.com for current rates. Most restaurants, shops and hotels accept credit cards and U.S. dollars. Be aware, if you pay cash, the exchange rate may not be the best, and you will probably receive your change in pesos. It pays to carry small bills.
The best place for banks, ATMs and currency-exchange houses (casas de cambio) is on Calle 16 de Septiembre near the seaside walkway known as the malecon. Banks exchange currency from 9 a.m. to noon Monday to Friday. Most exchange houses such as Tony Money Exchange (Calle 16 de Septiembre) are open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. If you need to change dollars for pesos on Sunday, large hotels are your best bet.
Where You're Docked
Azamara Club Cruises, Holland America and Princess dock 10 miles (about 30 minutes' drive) north of town at the cruise ship terminal at Pichilingue, near the mainland ferry terminal. The smaller ships of Un-Cruise Adventures dock in town, within easy walking distance to attractions.
Strolling from the in-town Port of La Paz along the three-mile-long Malecon Alvaro Obregon is a local tradition. The tiled seaside walkway is dotted with sculptures of marine animals and offers great bay views, as well as shops, cafes and restaurants. One block away is the Centro Cultural La Paz, housed in the restored 1910 city hall. Inside are a bookshop and Baja-themed exhibits (open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily). Three blocks inland is the city's main square, Plaza Constitucion, also called Plaza Jardin Velasco, with its tile-roofed gazebo and 1865 cathedral. The adjacent Centro de Artes Populares showcases art and photography (open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday).
At the Pichilingue dock, a craft market is set up on cruise ship days. There are no other facilities.
On Foot: With its streets radiating from the waterfront in a classic grid, La Paz is best explored on foot.
By Bus: Cruise lines such as Azamara offer complimentary shuttle buses from the Pichilingue cruise pier to town. Public buses leave daily at set departure times from the pier to Terminal Turistica on the malecon. Some buses stopping at the pier continue to the beaches at Tecolote and Balandra. Be sure to check the return schedule because buses can show up as infrequently as one every two to three hours.
By Taxi: Cab fare from the cruise ship terminal to downtown runs about $20. To visit beaches north and south of the city, either take a cab (La Paz taxis don't have meters, so agree on the fare upfront) or rent a car.
By Car: Most major car rental chains have offices along the malecon.
Watch Out For
La Paz is surrounded by turquoise waters teeming with exciting marine life, so swimming, snorkeling and diving with sea lions and whale sharks rate as top attractions. Anyone planning to go in the water should be aware of the chance of encountering jellyfish or getting a warning bite from a sea lion. Always follow the lead of your dive guide, wear protective gear (a wetsuit) and check out your underwater companions carefully.
The island rookery of Los Islotes is home to a colony of sea lions accustomed to divers and snorkelers. If you're not already smitten watching these charismatic pinnipeds sunbathe, nurse and fight for prime real estate, you will be after joining them for a swim. Juvenile sea lions will somersault beside you and blow bubbles in your face. The only things to watch out for are the adult males (up to 600 pounds) and the many other snorkelers in the water.
Swimming with whale sharks is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. These amazing bus-size plankton eaters are the largest fish on the planet, reaching 65 feet in length. The Cortez Club, a watersports outfitter, has pangas to take you out where whale sharks traditionally gather in the bay. If you would rather look than swim, you can stay aboard the open fishing boat and be awed by one or more of these gentle giants. The small boat ride can be rough. If you are prone to seasickness, take appropriate precautions.
La Fuente is a small ice cream shop on the malecon with legendary appeal. Look for the tree out front that's painted white with colorful polka dots. Ice cream aficionados line up for homemade treats in usual and not so usual flavors. Try the tequila with almond or elote (corn). Also delicious are fruit paletas or popsicles in exotic flavors like pitahaya (from the cactus; deep purple with seeds). (Alvaro Obregon and Ocampo; open 9 a.m. to midnight daily)
Been There, Done That
The Museo Regional de Antropologia e Historia traces Baja's interesting history from pre-Columbian cave paintings to pirates, plus the development of Mexico since independence. (5 de Mayo at Altamirano; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily)
The whale museum Museo de la Ballena is noted for its collection of gigantic whale bones in the garden. (Navarro at Altamirano; open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday)
Todos Santos is an artsy town on the Pacific coast, about an hour's drive from La Paz. It boasts more than a dozen art galleries, casual outdoor cafes and the renowned Hotel California. Though it's not the hotel made famous by the Eagles, you'll hear their song playing in nearby shops. You won't be able to get the tune out of your head when you leave.
At Artesania Cuauhtemoc, visitors can watch weavers at their looms, spinning cotton from the Santo Domingo Valley into rugs, blankets, wall hangings and clothing. (Calle Abasolo 3315) Also, artisans create colorful, hand-painted ceramics at Ibarra's Pottery. They sell ready-made dishwasher and microwave-safe items, or you can have your pottery custom-made. (Guillermo Prieto 625; open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday)
La Ventana and Los Barriles, about 45 minutes and an hour south of La Paz, respectively, rank as world-class windsurfing destinations, with winds of 20 to 30 mph and curving shorelines. Lessons, even for beginners, are available mid-November to March.
The farther you move away from town either north or south, the nicer the beaches.
Best for Families: Playa Balandra, 3.5 miles north of Pichilingue, is a series of shallow bays with white-sand beaches and snorkeling at the south end. It's open to the public, with no fees. The city council declared it an environmentally protected area in 2008.You'll recognize the beach by the often photographed Mushroom Rock balancing precariously atop a thin spire. Measuring about 12 feet in height and 10 feet in diameter at its top, the 18-ton icon has been righted several times over the years.
Best for an Active Day: Playa El Tecolote, a few miles north of Balandra, is a long wide, white-sand beach facing the lovely island of Espiritu Santo. You can swim anywhere in the roped off area along the beach. You can also rent beach chairs, umbrellas, fishing tackle, kayaks and paddleboards. The beach (free to the public) has pay showers and free public palapas for shade. Two restaurants, El Tecolote and Palapa Azul, offer seafood, cold drinks and boat tours. Note: It can get windy here.
Best for a Stroll: El Mogote, a seven-mile peninsula facing La Paz and separated from it by the Canal de La Paz, features five miles of sandy waterfront. Once an out-of-the-way escape, resort and condo development has changed its look from unspoiled to manicured. There is also a golf course. While most of the beach is public (no fees), resorts are starting to offer private areas, and sections of these golden sands are turtle sanctuaries. The beach is about a 40-minute drive from La Paz.
One of the highlights of a day in La Paz is sampling the local cuisine, especially anything fresh from the sea, plus the homemade ice cream from La Fuente. Affordable restaurants outnumber chains, and tasty meals can be widely found throughout the downtown area.
La Terraza pairs Mexican and Italian dishes with great alfresco people watching. (Paseo Obregon and Calle La Paz at Hotel Perla; open noon to 10:30 p.m. daily)
El Bismarkcito has been serving fresh fish tacos and seafood with a view since starting out as a food truck in the 1960s. (Paseo Alvaro Obregon)
La Fonda de los Brisenos serves large portions of home-style Mexican dishes at reasonable prices. (Revolucion and Bravo; open 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily)
Mariscos El Carrito serves fresh seafood dishes. (Corner of Paseo Obregon and Morelos; open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily)
Las Tres Virgenes prepares Baja cuisine with a Mediterranean touch. Try the venison tostadas and rose petal quesadillas. (Madera and Constitucion Hidalgo; lunch from 1 to 4:45 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday)
Los Magueyes dishes up Mexican favorites (Avenida de Allende No. 512 e; open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday)
Il Rustico serves pizza and tasty Italian treats in a garden setting. (Calle Revolucion N 1930; closed Tuesdays, winter hours are 5 to 11 p.m. weekdays, 3 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday, summer hours from 6 to 11 p.m.)
Palermo's Ristorante serves wood-fired pizza and mesquite-grilled steaks. Their international wine list is extensive. (Paseo Obregon and Hidalgo; open noon to 11 p.m daily)
Staying in Touch
Many cafes and hotels offer free wireless Internet access, as do marinas. Internet cafes along the malecon include Omni Services, where hourly rates are low, usually a couple of dollars. (Paseo Obregon 460-C)
Best for First-Timers: A four-hour city highlight tour takes you to the Anthropology Museum to learn about the once booming pearl industry in the Sea of Cortez. Visit the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, built in 1861, before shopping for crafts at the arts center. Your tour ends with a stroll along Tecolote Beach.
Best for Bragging Rights: The big attraction in La Paz is the water and what's swimming in it. The best excursion for doing something your friends probably have never done is snorkeling with whale sharks. A three-hour tour takes you by small boat to the whale sharks' usual hangouts so you can snorkel with the world's largest fish. Some cruise lines impose lower (must be 8 years old) and upper age (maximum 70) and weight (280 pounds maximum) limits.
Best for Families: If you have a budding herpetologist in the family, head to El Serpentario Reptile Center and Cactus Nursery. The serpentarium is home to a number of indigenous and foreign species of snakes, lizards, turtles and crocodiles. A naturalist shares information about the critters. During the 2.5-hour excursion, they pass around some of the friendlier species for visitors to hold. This is not a place for the squeamish.
Best for a Fun Snorkel: Snorkel with playful sea lions at Los Islotes, a marine park. You may also encounter dolphins and other marine creatures. A meal is provided on the 6.5-hour tour. Some cruise lines offer a 3.5-hour sea lion snorkel at San Rafaelito Island.
For More Information
On the Web: La Paz tourism and Go La Paz
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Mexican Riviera
The Independent Traveler: Mexico Travel Guide
--By Susan Jaques, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Ginger Dingus, Cruise Critic contributor